Thought I'd use the bunko cover, just for variety.
After wrapping up the Zerozaki novels in style, I thought I'd head back to where it all started and reassess.
I've often stated that I liked the first enough to buy the second, and the second enough to buy everything he'd written at the time.
A bad mood could have changed that story. Man, does the opening to this book drag. I'm not saying everything before the first murder is dire, but it is certainly a focus-free meander, vaguely trying to introduce his cast but none of them really managing to make of an impact. Except for Kunagisa, who...hasn't aged well. Treating a character with a litany of moe traits as if she were a legitimate character was relatively novel then; I'm not sure it's been all that widely imitated even now, but the louder moe traits have come to grate a lot more, and I wound up finding her a lot harder to like.
Nisio's explained at some length that this first book was the toughest novel he's ever completed; something like three page one revisions that dramatically changed the book, shifting it from a novel intended to launch a series of mystery novels with Kunagisa as the detective, to an oddball sort of fake mystery novel that accidentally reads more like a character study of Ii-chan. Every now and then they sit down and make charts of alibis or attempt to solve locked room puzzles. He has a few amusing stunts hidden here -- the three puzzles ascend through the dimensions from paint on the floor, to a high up window, to an incident that could not have happened at the time it happened -- but by and large these bits accomplish little, and are there to be skimmed till something more interesting happens.
Ii-chan initially presents himself as minimally as possible; he's almost a mute video game protagonist, he has so little personality, and so little involvement with anyone he talks to. The people around him are complete in themselves; they could have the same conversations with a stump, and be just as happy. Even the few bits of personality he does show off just encourage us to identify with him; he's befuddled by the crazier things people say, capable of making the odd self-deprecating joke, and resigned to letting himself be led around by everyone else.
It's a trap, of course. A disquieting flash of anger from him at dinner is the first sign that he might have been lying to us. With increasing frequency, the other cast members stop talking to stumps and start projecting themselves onto Ii-chan's careful blank slate. Each of them believes themselves to be describing his personality, and Ii-chan agrees -- or tells us he does -- with every scathing evaluation unleashed on him. That these descriptions contradict each other doesn't seem to bother him.
The climax to this reading of the novel comes well before the mystery is resolved and the killer caught; the emotional climax of the book comes in a scene where a berserk bodyguard triplet maid breaks her omnipresent silence, drags Ii-chan into a room, feeds him a pack of lies a mile high -- lies so ornate he can't even begin to work out if there's a kernel of truth to them anywhere -- and prompts Ii-chan to take what feels like the one moment of genuine emotional honesty he displays anywhere in the volume. He asks her a question -- a question phrased as a metaphor, the subject of the metaphor ambiguous, his meaning buried in a lie. The closest thing we get to peeling back the layers of what he tells us and seeing what he's trying so hard to keep from us, and it makes no damn sense at all.
Coming back to that scene after the whole series and it blew my mind again. There's something hidden at the center of this inexpertly presented, amateurish, awkward first novel that rewards rediscovery.